IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Taking Pride in Data: Government's Role in Serving LGBTQ+ Needs

Existing data gaps related to the needs of the LGBTQ+ community must be understood and addressed in order for government agencies to equitably serve the needs of constituents regardless of identity.

The progress pride flag waves in front of blue sky.
For government agencies focused on equity, data plays an essential role in understanding and addressing needs of the LGBTQ+ community. From data related to public health to that related to hate acts, it plays a critical role in understanding this population’s needs.

Although the number of openly identifying LGBTQ+ individuals in elected office is at a historic high, this population is still underrepresented in elected office.

As a recent survey detailed, younger generations are increasingly identifying as part of this population, with nearly 1 in 5 individuals in Generation Z identifying as LGBTQ+. For government, this is a significant portion of constituents. As such, agencies must take extra steps to ensure digital services are inclusive for this population.
John Auerbach, a former CDC director, has had a decadeslong career in public health, including serving as the first director of HIV services for the state of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts health commissioner and as the city of Boston’s health director. Currently, he is the senior vice president for federal health at ICF.

Auerbach explained that among the LGBTQ+ population, gaps exist in access to health care. LGBTQ+ populations are disproportionately likely to be uninsured, face discrimination, higher rates of unemployment and greater levels of poverty. This population may also face discrimination when seeking care or providers. Recent legislation limiting access to gender-affirming health care could also affect this population.

“I think what we know from the data that we’ve looked at is that when people face repeated types of discrimination, it has a negative impact on their health,” Auerbach said, citing both physical health in relation to violence and mental health.

One of the existing gaps for this population is within the data collection process itself, as questions about sexual orientation or gender identity were not routinely collected in health care and public health settings. This is something that is changing, with the federal government having recently taken action to improve data equity for this population.

Asking those questions in a way that mitigates harm or discrimination is also important, Auerbach noted, adding that he has seen progress in this area since his start in the public health space over 30 years ago.

He cited two positive examples of public health data-gathering efforts: the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey and studies conducted at federally qualified community health centers who regularly provide care to historically marginalized populations.

In collecting data, Auerbach says organizations have found ways to address the privacy concerns that have been raised, starting with asking clear questions and understanding that LGBTQ+ individuals may fear that this information could be used against them. As such, those collecting the data should be well-trained in the importance of confidentiality and the sensitive nature of such data.

One of the main ways data can be used to support this population, he said, is understanding if and how an illness is disproportionately affecting this population to better address or prevent it through specialized approaches such as custom messaging and other programmatic interventions.

“Without the data, you're guessing, and you really can't even make the argument that you need to have specialized approaches,” he said.

ICF is also doing work to innovate the methods of data capture, such as a shift from surveys conducted by calling landlines to methods like mobile phone and electronic surveys. In addition, ICF is exploring how to gather data from adolescents, using the right privacy protocols and language.

As technology evolves, so too will data practices, he believes. For example, he argues that AI and forecasting tools could potentially help use relatively small amounts of data and make projections about the larger population.

Cities Take Steps to Improve Data

According to Mariangely Solis Cervera, the chief of equity and inclusion for the city of Boston, LGBTQ+ inclusion is something that the city has been working to address within its own data collection practices.

Solis Cervera explained that gender inclusion has been a priority for Mayor Michelle Wu since she was serving the city in her previous capacity as city councilor. Upon becoming mayor, Wu launched the inaugural Mayor's Office of LGBTQ+ Advancement (MOLA).

“Under this administration, we have an opportunity to think differently and to do things differently,” said Solis Cervera, explaining that this mindset led to a partnership between MOLA and the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT).

According to Solis Cervera, this effort started with an intentional decision to invest a significant amount of time early in the process in education related to what is possible and what is needed.

As a result, a strategy was created to address data gaps in marriage licensing — paperwork previously only included male and female options. Initially, the city thought to solve this by adding a third box for those who do not identify as male or female. Through community engagement — part of which was accomplished by holding multiple focus groups with LGBTQ+ residents — the city learned that people wanted the ability to file without including a gender option at all.

“What this collaboration is presenting is an opportunity for us to look at data collection across the city in general,” she said. “And so, we are laying the foundation so that we can start centralizing the way that we collect data.”

Additionally, the city will be using the scope of work used for the gender inclusion ordinance to serve as a framework for responsibly creating new policies around data collection processes. This initial effort, paired with access to better data, will help the city invest funding more equitably for historically excluded communities in areas like housing, public health and beyond.

“For me, equity is an action,” Solis Cervera said.

Boston is not unique in its work to improve data collection processes for this population. Another example is Philadelphia’s work with the Employee Self-Identification Census, through which employees can voluntarily self-identify sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Philadelphia Office of LGBT Affairs started this data collection to turn some of the office’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives inward to better understand the LGBTQ+ representation among city employees and ensure that city staff represents the communities they serve.

“It was important for us to begin collecting that data because we can fix what we can see,” Office of LGBT Affairs Executive Director Celena Morrison told Government Technology in 2022.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
Nikki Davidson is a data reporter for <i>Government Technology</i>. She’s covered government and technology news as a video, newspaper, magazine and digital journalist for media outlets across the country. She’s based in Monterey, Calif.